Tuesday, September 25, 2012


Following years of slow decay, work has now started on Lews Castle to turn it from a crumbling unloved wreck into an upmarket hotel and spanking new state of the art museum for the islands. Several million pounds has been allocated to stabilise and do basic repairs to the building and the remaining work will be completed within two years, assuming funding is obtained. The total cost of the project, amounting to some £13 million, is being bankrolled by the Western Isles Council, Heritage Lottery Fund and an anticipated grant from the European Union.
If all goes to plan, the hotel and museum will be completed in August 2014 and both are expected to become major tourist attractions, drawing in an anticipated 50,000 visitors a year between them and providing new employment opportunities. In the meantime, the existing museum on Francis Street is closing at the beginning of October and the staff will spend the next two years preparing for the opening of the new museum. 

I love the feeling of change in Autumn, when the temperature drops, the fires are lit and the days become significantly shorter. With almost no deciduous trees on the island, there is no dramatic change from green to brown, or leaf drop, to herald the advent of Winter. The obvious signs of colder days to come are the browning of the moors all around us and the disappearance of most flowers.
I was out taking a walk this morning though and was pleased to see the variety of flowers that are still in bloom. The purple heather is dying back now, but the vivid orange Montbretia (Crocosmia), which grows wild, as well as in gardens, is to be found on many roadside verges just now. It provides a welcome cheerful burst of late colour, as does the lovely Devil's Bit Scabious, with it's pale blue pompoms flowering wherever it is wet and boggy. The flower heads of Bog Asphodel are long gone, but the remaining burnt orange stems are attractive and to be found in all the wet parts of the croft. The gorgeous little yellow Tormentil is still in flower and I even found a late flowering patch of Mimulus, the monkey flower, in a nearby ditch.

The Harris Tweed industry here on Lewis and Harris was on its knees a few years ago and in danger of disappearing, but has recently undergone a Phoenix like resurgence.
After a long period of poor marketing and leadership and reducing sales, huge efforts have been made to revitalise Harris Tweed making and boom times seem to be here again. New weavers have been trained at local colleges and the industry is now said to be worth £4 million a year and currently supporting more than 400 jobs in the Outer Hebrides.
This renewed interest has created its own problems. No looms have been manufactured for years and all the available second hand looms have been put back into productive use, but no one is making or supplying spare parts, which is causing difficulties when looms break down.
In an initiative to deal with this, the Harris Tweed Weavers Association is developing a 'loom spares and maintenance' service to obtain and keep stocks of replacement loom parts in reserve on the island. A European Union grant will pay for an administrator and a stock of replacement spare parts, although I have no idea where they will be sourced from.
Individual weavers will pay £3 for each tweed they make, to support the new scheme, which will hopefully keep the looms rolling. 

It is no secret that alcohol abuse has long been a problem here on the islands, but I was a bit taken aback recently to read that a new report is claiming that the misuse of alcohol is costing the Outer Hebrides in the region of £26 million pounds every year.
Alcohol Focus Scotland says its study arrives at this figure by adding together the cost of hospital admissions and treatment for alcohol related medical problems, crime, Social Work interventions and the cost of care home places for people with alcohol addictions. It details a whole host of other negative effects of abusive drinking including domestic violence, absences from and unfitness to work and premature deaths. 
Apart from the sum of money said to be involved, little of this information is a surprise, except that the report states that the majority of alcohol is now purchased at supermarkets and drunk at home and not bought in pubs and other licenced premises, as was once the case. 
Alcohol Focus Scotland say they hope their report will assist licensing boards to regulate alcohol licensing with the aim of reducing harm and the cost to the public purse of alcohol misuse.  

Finally, it looks like the poor Grey Lag Goose is a victim of its own success here on the Islands and is about to pay the price. 
These handsome birds were once only visitors, on migration,  but many are now resident throughout the year and have been so successful in breeding that their numbers have exploded recently. I can now look out of my windows most days and see small flocks of Grey Lags grazing on the croft, which was a rare sight a few years ago.
There are estimated to be over 6000 geese living here and causing huge amounts of damage through eating crops and grass and fouling grasslands with their droppings, especially in Benbecula and Uist. 
Non lethal methods of controlling their numbers - such as gas scarers, scarecrows and imitation birds of prey - have failed and Scottish Natural Heritage have now agreed to issue licences to shoot some of the the resident geese out of season in an attempt to control their numbers, before the migratory geese arrive to start feasting on our lovely winter grass.

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